While the farming community in South Africa has often expressed concern that land reform will threaten food security, Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies and Institute of Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (Plaas) senior professor Ben Cousins believes there is no basis for such a concern, as little land has been transferred to date.
Further, he notes that, of the land that has been transferred, some has not previously been used to produce food.
“Given that there is massive concentration in the farming sector – the top 25% of farmers produce 75% of South Africa’s produce – government could easily achieve its land reform target without negatively influencing commercial production in any way,” says Cousins.
Government wants to transfer 30% of the estimated 82-million hectares of agricultural land that is owned by white commercial farmers to black farmers by 2014. The transferred land will represent 24.5-million hectares.
To date, government has redistributed nearly 8% of the 30% targeted white-owned land and resolved 90% of urban restitution claims through cash compensation.
Land restitution, unlike redistribution is rights-based. Around 3 000 rural land claims, which government would like to resolve through restoration of land and not cash compensation, are still to be settled.
“In my opinion, the 30% target was purely arbitrary. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be 50% or 70% over the longer term. There is also no reason why the agriculture sector cannot stay productive in the face of land reform,” Cousins stresses.
He adds that land reform has, to date, had a minimal impact on the agriculture sector, but acknowledges that it has created uncertainty among commercial farmers about the future.
“Currently, land is being leased to land reform beneficiaries on short-term leases, instead of being transferred in ownership, which means these farmers do not have long-term security.”
He adds that the African National Congress Youth League’s (ANCYL’s) call on government to amend the country’s Constitution and not compensate farmers for land has caused insecurity and uncertainty.
Forceful Land Acquisitions
Cousins does not believe that forceful land acquisitions will become a reality in South Africa, as government is committed to property rights, despite occasionally ‘making a noise’ about the amount of white-owned land in South Africa.
“I think forceful land acquisition is highly unlikely in South Africa,” he states.
However, he notes that a major contributor to the uncertainty, which he attributes to the emotional responses from farmers and the ANCYL with regard to land reform, is that government does not communicate clearly to the public.
“Government likes to make farmers the scapegoats so they can blame them for the failure of land reform,” says Cousins.
He adds that current public arguments are not about land, but symbolise other issues. “People’s reactions are based on emotion. Not much of the public debate is actually about how to carry out effective land reform.”
Nevertheless, Cousins emphasises that if government keeps moving at its current slow pace, populist politicians might use the situation as an excuse for urging a confiscatory land reform system, similar to that which happened in Zimbabwe.
“I think it is highly unlikely at the moment, but it could become a reality in future; however, I doubt that land occupations similar to the scale on which they have taken place in Zimbabwe, would ever take place in South Africa,” he states.
Government is reviewing its land reform policy and, last year, released a draft Green Paper on Land Reform.
Cousins states that not much clarity has, to date, emerged about the final version of the green paper. “The policy review has been a long-winded process.
“Why the policy process has been so slow is not clear, but it seems like inefficiency by government. Why the land reform process has been so slow is another question,” he states.
The biggest hurdle to land redistribution has been the slow and cumbersome buying of land through the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ approach. The alternative is proactive land acquisition in areas of both need and opportunity.
“Government has not been an efficient buyer of land, as the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform does not have adequate negotiation skills and is hampered by budget constraints. Government has a small budget for land reform – never more than 1% of its national budget has been allocated for this purpose,” says Cousins.
He stresses that land reform could contribute towards poverty reduction in South Africa. “Even if land reform beneficiaries use the land to produce food only for themselves, it will make a contribution towards alleviating poverty, as food security will be established.”
However, to truly address the roots of rural poverty, agricultural production will have to involve people producing both for the market and for themselves.
Areas where proactive acquisition and concentrated land-buying have worked well include Elliot, in the Eastern Cape, and Besters, in KwaZulu-Natal, where the proportion of farmland transferred quickly reached 20% to 30% of the total in those areas, says Cousins.
He says that, unfortunately, land transfers in these cases, and others, have not been matched by effective support services – a key component of effective land reform.
This is another key issue not adequately addressed in the African National Congress’s land-reform proposals, he points out.
In 2010, Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti reported that 90% of the redistributed farmland was failing to produce food and that government might be forced to repossess the properties if that continued.
Plaas researchers, however, disagree with the Minister’s statement, estimating that only on 50% of redistributed farms there is little production taking place.
The institute admits that although a 50% failure rate is high, it is much less than what government claims.
Plaas states there has been public criticism about what many believe to be the failure of the land reform system.
Government has, therefore, through its recapitalisation and development programme, decided to assist the beneficiaries of redistributed land in keeping it productive.
Cousins believes the weaknesses of the current proactive land acquisition strategy, or PLAS, fails to provide tenure security and is subject to elite capture, which has also not been dealt with.
He stresses that, for proactive acquisition and concentrated land acquisition to work, three enabling conditions are required. The first is the need to equip government officials with the requisite skills and expertise, not only for canny land buying but also for effective spatial planning and agriculture support services.
The second is a budget large enough to transfer land on a significant scale, as well as support its new owners in establishing productive enterprises. Quadrupling the land reform budget, perhaps at the expense of defence, is imminently affordable, he states.
The third – and crucial – condition is sufficient political will to implement large-scale land redistribution.
To ensure land reform’s sustainability, this would have to be a component of and contribute to a wider agrarian reform strategy, which radically reconfigures the highly skewed agrarian structure inherited from apartheid and creates market opportunities for new emerging farmers.
Meanwhile, Cousins points out that government’s tenure reform programme, aimed at securing land rights for farm workers and communal land residents, has largely failed.
Tenure reform aims to strengthen the rights of people whose land tenure is insecure as a result of discriminatory laws and practices in the past. They include farm workers, labour tenants and rural households living on privately-owned land, as well as people living in the former homelands under the authority of traditional chiefs, he explains.
“Little progress has been made with the tenure reform programme; in fact, farm workers are continually evicted despite government laws and policies. Therefore, this programme must be deemed a failure,” he states.
Engineering Sector Involvement
Meanwhile, Cousins points out that the agricultural engineering sector must realise that land redistribution beneficiaries provide a new market with new opportunities.
He adds that the sector can help these beneficiaries by downscaling technology and providing training. More affordable equipment is also needed.
“The shortage of capital to invest in farming hampers successful land reform, which is why bigger machines and larger-scale technology are not necessarily appropriate.
“The available technology is often out of reach for land-reform beneficiaries,” says Cousins.
Training courses about tractor repair and maintenance, equipment repair and maintenance, as well as how to use and repair knapsack sprayers, are desperately needed to assist land reform beneficiaries in cultivating produce and contributing to production in South Africa.
Emerging farmers need to be trained in the use of capital equipment and have expert advice at their disposal when they encounter problems, such as how to deal with diseases that affect crops. They also need advice on marketing, as well as how to enter into cooperative partnerships.
In addition, land reform beneficiaries need support services to gain access to water and irrigation.
“Credit and finance is also an issue and new farmers need to be educated about where the opportunities in the agricultural sector are,” says Cousins.